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Nevada Basketball: Takeaways after first three conference games

What can we takeaway from Nevada’s 3-0 start in conference play?

Syndication: Reno Gazette Journal JASON BEAN/RGJ / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team has remained unbeaten in Mountain West play through three games, knocking off the Boise State Broncos, Air Force Flacons and Colorado State Rams.

The Mountain West is loaded this year yet again, perhaps even more than it was last year. And Nevada is lumped into the mix as one of those teams — especially after its 13-3 start — so let’s dig into some takeaways from those three games to see what we can piece together.

1. Its defense has slightly tailed off, but Pack have been able to muster enough offense:

Nevada’s defense has tailed off in recent weeks, but the offense has been the most productive so far in conference play.

They are scoring north of 114.0 points per 100 possessions, posting a 57.2 effective field goal percentage — 55.1 percent on 2s and 40.4 percent on 3s — with an 86.1 free-throw percentage (more on that below).

While Nevada doesn’t crash the glass at an exceptionally high rate, it’s not turning the ball over — especially late in games — and has produced efficient offense behind its stalwarts in Jarod Lucas, Kenan Blackshear and Will Baker (also more on that below).

Their three games have come against a top-15 defense in Boise State and two below-average (and undersized) defenses in Air Force and Colorado State. So take its offensive eruption for what it’s worth. But the Pack are ultimately knocking down shots — efficiently — from all areas, which wasn’t always easy to come by — specifically from 3-point range — earlier in the season.

If they can continue doing that, while getting to the free-throw line at a high rate — which head coach Steve Alford has wanted his teams to do, historically — Nevada will end up being one of the best offenses in the Mountain West when it’s all said and done.

2. Pack still getting to the charity stripe at an exceptionally high rate:

Throughout the season, Nevada has been one of the nation’s most potent free-throw teams. It ranks in the top-10 nationally in free-throw rate (44.2 percent; 10th), free-throw percentage (80.3 percent; 7th) and percentage of points coming from the free-throw line (26.0).

Among its eight players who have attempted at least 20 field goals, five have free-throw rates (FTs per FGA) north of 35 percent, including three with rates above 42 percent. Generating paint touches, applying pressure downhill and absorbing contact at or near the rim has been a focus for Nevada this season, which is somewhat quantifiable by their free-throw rate.

And that trend has maintained itself in its three conference games; they have shot at least 23 free-throws in each game, knocking them down at a conference-best 86.1 percent. They sport a ridiculous, yet unsustainable 49.2 percent free-throw rate in those three games while having scored 27.1 percent of their points from the free-throw line; for perspective, they’ve scored at least 74 points in each of those three games.

Some teams will defend without fouling well. But Nevada’s made drawing fouls look easy all season, even if its current mark feels unsustainable.

3. Pack continues bridging together frontcourt without Hymes:

It was announced last week that K.J. Hymes would likely miss the rest of the season after undergoing minor back surgery. Hymes got off to an outstanding start this season, averaging 9.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and three blocks on 66.6 percent shooting true-shooting.

But Hymes, who was one of Nevada’s most experienced veterans, has not played since Nov. 18 because of his injury. Nevertheless, Nevada has still bridged together minutes between junior 7-footer Will Baker and redshirt freshman Nick Davidson, especially as conference play has arrived and Alford’s rotation is solidifying.

The Wolf Pack haven’t been as good of a rebounding team without Hymes on the floor, but they’re still protecting the rim, screening well enough on- and off-the-ball and are both capable floor-spacers. Both Davidson and Baker know their roles, and they’ve executed them well during this early stretch.

4. Jarod Lucas, Kenan Blackshear and Will Baker continue forming one of the conference’s top trios:

There’s Jaelen House, Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Morris Udeze for New Mexico.

There’s Steven Ashworth, Max Shulga and Taylor Funk for Utah State.

There’s Marcus Shaver, Tyson Degenhart and Max Rice/Chibuzo Agbo for Boise State.

Guess what? There’s also Kenan Blackshear, Jarod Lucas and Will Baker for Nevada.

In Nevada’s first three conference games, and throughout its first half of the season in general, the squad’s top trio has stepped up mightily.

Lucas posted a career-high 28 points at Air Force, a place that’s hard-er to muster up enough energy on the road. Kenan Blackshear had 20 points with five dimes and two steals against Boise State and Baker completely took advantage of Colorado State’s lack of size with 16 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting Wednesday.

In total, the Wolf Pack’s triumvirate have combined to average 50.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 2.3 steals in Mountain West action. That’s a healthy amount of production, especially when they’ve had good production elsewhere in Davidson, Darrion Williams and Tre Coleman, among others.

Nevada will have stiffer defensive competition against the likes of San Diego State, Boise State (again) and UNLV, but it’s going to be tough for teams to shut down at least two of their three, let alone all three. Teams are going to have to pick their poison based on scheme and personnel on who to stop on each night. And if the Pack can generate enough supplementary production from their ancillary weapons, they should be in a great spot moving forward.

Right now, however, Blackshear, Lucas and Baker are playing very good basketball. They’re going to have some hiccups here and there, but this should be one of the conference’s best trios as we dig deeper into conference play.